In L.A., Civilians Will Have Power Over Sheriff’s Department

By Julianne Hing Dec 15, 2014

The scandal-plagued Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department will soon have a separate board to police it after the county Board of Supervisors approved a measure to move forward with the creation of a civilian oversight board last week.

In a 3-2 vote, the Board of Supervisors voted to authorize the creation of a civilian oversight board and to put together a so-called work group that will generate recommendations on the composition, duties and powers the commission will have. 

"It’s a huge victory for human rights," says Patrisse Cullors, the executive director of Dignity and Power Now, a group that has organized for accountability of the embattled Sheriff’s Department since 2012. "This civilian board is dedicated to all the victims, families, and survivors of sheriffs’ violence."

Community groups have long been calling for reform of the Sheriff’s Department, which is the fourth-largest law enforcement agency in the country and runs the nation’s largest jail system. But in recent years, the county and federal government have joined the chorus. The county jail system is inching toward a federal consent decree stemming from the treatment of mentally ill inmates in the system. This summer, 18 L.A. County deputies were indicted for blocking a 2011 federal probe into alleged misconduct in the jails. Six were convicted.

As it is, 40 percent of the people in the county jail system are black even though blacks make up just 13 percent of Los Angeles County, points out Rev. Peter Laarman, a member of the Justice Not Jails police accountability coalition. "The jail system here is a gulag filled with black and brown bodies."

Justice Not Jails recently released a list of the 601 people it says were killed by law enforcement officers in Los Angeles between the years or 2000 and 2014. The list was based on records from the Los Angeles County Coroner’s office. Of the 326 people killed in the last seven years, according to Justice Not Jails, 82 percent of them were black or Latino, more than half were under the age of 30, and 98 percent were male. 

In his last report on the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, published this past August, Special Counsel Merrick Bobb cited a decidedly "anti-reform counter movement" that took hold under former Sheriff Lee Baca’s tenure. "Across the Department, deputies were affirmatively encouraged to ‘work in the gray zone’–an apparent green light for unconstitutional or near-unconstitutional misconduct," Bobb wrote. 

Baca resigned in disgrace earlier this year.

The civilian oversight board motion was authored by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Hilda Solis, a former Obama cabinet member and newly elected member of the five-person board. "The sheriff’s department has long required a level of scrutiny that has been missing," Ridley-Thomas said in a statement. "The time has come."

The vote came amidst public outrage and ongoing protests across the nation over the non-indictments of the police officers who killed Eric Garner and Michael Brown, both of them unarmed black males. Supervisors noted the national climate in their remarks, and said the protests proved the urgency of the issue. "Across the country, public trust in the people charged with keeping us safe has fallen to a new low," says Supervisor Hilda Solis, a newly elected member of the five-person board.

We are the people that have been in your jails," Kim McGill, the executive director of the South Central-based Youth Justice Coalition said in her appeal to the board. "[We’re] the people that buried our family members when they’ve been killed by sheriffs." McGill referenced an invocation given at the start of the meeting urging board members to serve "the orphan, the widow, and the stranger." 

What It’ll Take to Make It Work

For Dignity and Power Now’s Cullors, the ideal civilian oversight commission will have independent legal power, including subpoena power, and it will guide the work of the new inspector general, Max Huntsman. The commission will be a nine-member board, including one appointee each from the Board of Supervisors and four from the community. No current or former law enforcement members will be on the board.

The county’s brand new sheriff, Jim McDonnell, who ran as a reformer of the troubled department, has backed the concept of the commission. McDonnell has recommended that Huntsman report to the commission once it’s created, and that the board should include seven to nine people.

The success of the commission will depend on transparency and accountability, Inspector General Huntsman said at last Tuesday’s meeting. "[Accountability] begins with access, and requires interactions with the sheriff, and that’s why I think it’s so critical that our elected sheriff states his full support for this concept."

In other words, the work is just beginning.

"By no means are we ready to pop the champagne just yet," says Justice Not Jails’ Laarman. "So many things can be muted unless we continue to organize."

Samuel Paz, a Los Angeles attorney who has represented clients who have been brutalized and stabbed while in Sheriff’s Department custody, points out that decades’ worth of efforts at accountability and oversight have not been able to sufficiently reform the agency. "The real deficiency in oversight has been the inability of the county for any of its oversight systems to effectively look at the conduct of supervisors," he says."It’s this mechanism, a wink and a nudge, where even if there is a shooting or conduct which violates policy, [sheriff’s deputies] know they won’t be held accountable, and they won’t lose their jobs. They know that even if there’s punitive damages it’ll be paid by the county." In 2013, the Board of Supervisors approved a $733,000 payout to Paz’s client who was stabbed while in county jail. 

Cullors, also a co-creator of #BlackLivesMatter, is already getting to work. But, she says, "One thing we’re going to start doing is claiming our victories. This is all of our victory."